By PAUL HINES
---- — MT. VERNON — When the Rams baseball team travels to Centralia today, they will be trying to claim a South Seven Conference crown.
It’s no secret Mt. Vernon has dominated conference play over the past few years. What may have gone a bit more unnoticed is the history Mt. Vernon achieved a week ago.
The team’s win at Murphysboro on Tuesday gave the Rams baseball program its fifth straight 20-win season.
It’s never happened in the history of the program.
The success over the past five seasons has come through a foundation of solid coaching, talented players and a winning mindset.
“We believe if you’re fundamentally sound, you have a chance to win any game you’re in,” Mt. Vernon coach Tim Holloway said. “You may not win them all, but you have to take every advantage and every opportunity that you get.”
Mt. Vernon baseball dates back to the 1940s, according to IHSA.org. In those days teams were lucky to play 10 games. As the popularity of the sport expanded so did the schedules. According to the site, the Rams first 20-victory season occurred in 1988 under the school’s winningest coach Ferrell Wiman.
Gil Bernard strung together four straight 20-win seasons in the mid-90s. Holloway played for Bernard in the early 90s before graduating and playing two sports at SIU-Edwardsville.
“I thought he was always a smart player,” Bernard said. “Those are the kind of guys that usually make pretty good coaches because they pay attention to detail, and as a coach you have to pay attention to the details.”
Mt. Vernon’s record during the stretch is a combined 127-43-1. The Rams have also racked up a pair of regional titles during the run.
“I’ve known some of the players that have played over the past few years, and they’re super kids,” Bernard said. “They’re good ball players and very coachable players with a lot of talent, and I think Tim has done a really good job helping to mold those kids.”
The Rams enter today’s matchup with the rival Orphans at 23-5-1 overall and riding a 13-game winning streak. Mt. Vernon hasn’t lost in more than a month.
During the last half decade, the Rams baseball program has sent numerous players to the college level including current Division I player Ryan Quick along with Division I signee Wes Mason. The Rams have established a pipeline to Rend Lake College. Quick started there. Currently, Blake Deaton and Zack Jones are playing for the Warriors. Current seniors Landon Thomas and Tyler Ellis have committed to Rend Lake.
“Being around athletics your entire life, you have a pretty good idea of who the winners are,” Holloway said. “They’re locked in mentally. They’re paying attention to everything.
“It’s just a lot of factors that go into it.”
Holloway along with his varsity coaching staff of Tom Fulkerson and Quinn McClure have constructed a professional-type model to the high school team. Players start out at the lower levels and grow comfortable adjusting to the game. They are allowed to grow and learn from their mistakes at the freshman and junior varsity levels before being brought up to the varsity level. The system is streamlined with coaches and players intermingling. A junior varsity coach may be working with varsity players at a certain point during the season. Also varsity coaches can dole out instruction to players at the lower levels.
Players are constantly being evaluated from the start of their high school career. The desired result is growth and maturity.
“Our varsity coaches work with the JV players and from their freshman year on we’re evaluating, trying to provide an atmosphere where those players can grow both as athletes and as individuals into a good varsity player,” Holloway said.
The system has led to 11 seniors being on the roster this season. Almost half of the team’s starting lineup is committed to play a sport in college. Tyler Ellis, Landon Thomas and Collin Young will all play baseball next year.
“We always want to play juniors and seniors,” Holloway said. “In the beginning, we needed to get those talented freshmen on the field and sophomores that had the strong work ethic and that it mattered to. We felt like once that was established and our camps got going then we could get what we call our minor league system in place.”
Holloway and his coaches implemented the system about a decade ago when they took over the baseball program.
“When we started our vision was to run a disciplined program that would be respected and successful in the long run, and we also wanted to carry on the success that the previous team and coaches had established before us,” Holloway said. “It took a few years.”
The goal was to teach the players fundamentals at a young age and allow them to develop at the JV level before making a jump to varsity.
“Early on, we had to play some young players,” Holloway said. “And it was a situation where they had to make their mistakes at the varsity level early on. They were very talented players that had a great work ethic, and they were a big reason why our program got back to where it is.”
From the results of the junior varsity team coached by Scott Gamber and Denny Clark, the Rams could have some more success in the future. The junior varsity Rams record stood at 22-4 late last week.
“It’s one of those deals where I think Tim does a really good job,” Bernard said. “If I had a son playing right now, he’s the kind of guy I would want him playing for.”
Last Five Seasons Year Record 2009 21-12 2010 29-7 2011 28-9 2012 26-10 2013 23-5-1